Chinese-Canadians are at a much higher risk of a diabetes diagnosis despite having lower rates of obesity compared with European Canadians, a new study suggests.

The incidence of diabetes increased 15-fold between 1996 and 2005 among Canadians of Chinese origin, but rose only 24 per cent in people with a European background, according to Thursday's study by researchers at Toronto's Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences.

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A patient with diabetes rests his arm on a table for specialist Dr. Tong Xiao Lin during a checkup in Beijing last year. Diabetes rates are increasing among people of Chinese origin in Canada and in China itself. (David Gray/Reuters)

"People are increasingly across all subgroups of the population doing less physical activity, being more sedentary, sitting in front of a screen all day, changing their diet," said Baiju Shah, the study's lead author and scientist at ICES.

"That's going to change weight and therefore the risk of diabetes."

Shah's team saw the increase in Type 2 diabetes rates even after accounting for differences in age, weight and socioeconomic status for the Chinese population.  

Migration of Chinese populations from densely populated urban areas to suburban populations where people tend to drive more may also be associated with greater diabetes risk, the researchers speculated. 

Specific obesity, diabetes prevention plans urged 

People of Chinese origin now join individuals from other non-European ethnic groups as being identified at high risk when screening for diabetes, Shah said.

Diabetes incidence increased from 1.3 to 19.6 per 1,000 person years in Ontario's Chinese population, and from 7.8 to 9.7  in the European population, the researchers said in the journal Diabetes Care. 

'A lot of times we trade our healthy way of eating and healthy lifestyle to actually a very rushed lifestyle.'— Dr. Chi-Ming Chow

Person years describes "the length of time of experience or exposure of a group of people who have been observed for varying periods of time," according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Shaw said Chinese-Canadians who are genetically predisposed may need specific prevention strategies to combat obesity and diabetes.

Dr. Chi-Ming Chow, a cardiologist in Toronto and a spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, talks to patients and doctors about how immigrants' health often changes after arriving.

"As immigrants we have lots of challenges with regards to time," Chow said. "Many people have to take care of the children as well as their parents so they end up rushing from A to B to Z. A lot of times we trade our healthy way of eating and healthy lifestyle to actually a very rushed lifestyle."

People "also tend to eat fast food or unhealthy food or foods that are rich in calories but no nutrients," Chow added.

Dr. Jan Hux is the chief scientific adviser for the Canadian Diabetes Association in Toronto, where she advises people caring for those with Type 2 diabetes or at risk for it. 

"I thought this was a really important and interesting study," Hux said.

"In clinical care, a false sense of security can be a dangerous thing. We like to be able to reassure people and tell them there isn't a risk, but if we reassure them when there is a risk that can be dangerous because they don't take appropriate action."

Hux stressed the appropriate action is to pursue a healthy diet that includes whole grains rather than refined grains, eat lots of fruits and vegetables and control portion sizes.

Hux also encouraged people to set realistic goals when incorporating more physical activity into their daily routine, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator and using active forms of transportation like cycling or getting off public transit at an earlier stop to walk to a destination.

The International Diabetes Federation predicts diabetes rates in Asia are expected to increase dramatically by 2030, with India and China together accounting for about 150 million people.

Diabetes is a disease in which the body doesn't produce or use insulin properly. The Canadian Diabetes Association estimate nine million people in the country have diabetes or pre-diabetes.

The study tracked about 77,000 people who identified themselves as being of Chinese or European descent. The researchers were funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and ICES. 

With files from CBC's Kas Roussy